NFC West: Leslie Frazier

Another look at Joe Looney's low block

August, 26, 2013
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You can bet coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers would have questions this morning if a Minnesota Vikings player had unnecessarily struck top defensive lineman Justin Smith in the knee Sunday night.

Williams
Williams
Looney
Looney
For that reason, I'll be interested in hearing the reaction from Harbaugh and 49ers players regarding the low block 49ers guard Joe Looney delivered against Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams. The play was winding down and Williams was looking over his shoulder as four Vikings players surrounded running back LaMichael James before tackling James for a 7-yard loss. Looney went low and struck the unsuspecting Williams in the right knee, bending the knee at an awkward angle and knocking Williams from the game.

Rules against illegal peel-back blocks prevent a player who is aligned in the tackle box at the snap from initiating contact "on the side and below the waist against an opponent if the blocker is moving toward his own end line and he approaches the opponent from behind or from the side."

Looney did not strike Williams from the side. He struck Williams from the front, but Williams did not see it coming because he was looking back over his shoulder.

"The guys upstairs [Vikings coaches] were telling me that was one of those where we will probably want to send it into the league, so I’m looking forward to seeing it," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said after the game. "They were pretty upset when they saw it. I’ve got to take a look at it."

Vikings defensive end Jared Allen called the play dirty. Williams said he needed to see replays before judging Looney's intent.

"I didn’t see him at all," Williams said. "I was just running towards the ball. He might’ve peeled back and got me. I don’t know where he came from. He hit me pretty low. We’ll watch it and see if it was dirty or not."

I've watched the replay several times. My initial reaction was that Looney's block was unnecessary because James appeared trapped in the backfield. The block appeared dirty in spirit because Williams could not see Looney approaching. However, James was initially trying to escape toward Looney's side when Looney started to get into blocking position. Williams was running toward Looney as if to cut off James. Looney was already committed to the block by the time James reversed course to make Williams less relevant to the play.

There was no penalty on the play. If Looney did not violate a written rule, the question becomes whether he violated an unwritten one by taking out an opponent at the knee when that opponent could not protect himself and probably wasn't going to factor in the play at that point. The idea that an unestablished player such as Looney would unnecessarily take out a six-time Pro Bowl choice at the knee during a preseason game isn't going to sit well with some, even if the play did not violate rules.

I'll update as the situation comes into clearer focus.
There was relatively little reaction Thursday when the Seattle Seahawks placed starters Chris Clemons and Zach Miller on their physically unable to perform (PUP) list to open training camp. Percy Harvin's presence on the list stirred up the NFL for reasons stemming in part from the wide receiver's sometimes stormy tenure with the Minnesota Vikings.

Harvin
NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert captured that dynamic Friday when asking whether Harvin's ailment was merely "camp hip" -- an injury Harvin might be using to manage training camp on his terms before suddenly clearing himself when the timing suited him.

"Harvin observers weren't at all surprised to hear that a potentially significant injury popped up out of nowhere on the first day of training camp," Seifert wrote, noting that Harvin has frequently missed practices for a variety of reasons. "It goes back to what we've always said about Harvin: Weird things always seem to happen around him."

Harvin and former Vikings coach Brad Childress clashed years ago when Harvin cited an ankle injury for missed practice time while refusing Childress' request to undergo an MRI exam. Those types of issues explained why the Viking weren't willing to invest in a second contract for Harvin.

The Seahawks are now in a position where they've invested more in Harvin than they've invested in any other player on the team. That commitment puts Harvin in a strong position. The team doesn't hold a hammer over him the way it has held one over other players.

Harvin is 25 years old and among the most dynamic players in the NFL. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, asked in March why the team would trade such a player, paused and said he would save the details for his memoirs. He was basically saying the relationship between Harvin and the Viking was complicated and ultimately unsustainable.

For all we know, Harvin could begin practicing in a couple days and never miss time because of the hip. He could adopt the practice mindset that has turned Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas and other franchise building blocks into team leaders at young ages. Until that happens, Harvin's strange history with the Vikings will have to suffice as our point of reference.
Percy HarvinAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThe Seattle Seahawks thought it was worth the risk to trade for wide receiver Percy Harvin.
Percy Harvin was an MVP candidate with the Minnesota Vikings in mid-October, and then he was expendable five months later -- traded to the Seattle Seahawks at age 24.

The move made little sense on the surface. Teams generally do not trade uniquely talented players entering the primes of their careers.

There had to be more to this story, but how much more? How much risk did the Seahawks assume when they paid three draft choices to the Vikings and more than $25 million in guarantees to Harvin? Four days at the recent NFL owners meeting in Phoenix provided an opportunity to chase down answers. Not that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was much help.

"There are a lot of layers to this situation," Frazier said, "and one day, when [we] sit down and write this book, we'll divulge all the layers. But it's complicated."

The Seahawks have been much clearer about their motivations. They see Harvin as a unique talent and someone whose unrelenting competitiveness -- a source of trouble for Harvin, particularly in his youth -- mirrors the very essence of coach Pete Carroll's program. When they connected with Harvin over Skype immediately following the trade, the multidimensional receiver had a message for them: He couldn't wait to practice against a secondary featuring combative cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.

That kind of talk has obvious appeal for Carroll, who has made competition his mantra. But where the Seahawks see competitiveness, a general manager from another team saw risk.

"Harvin has been kicked out of programs his whole life," the GM said. "Not just in the NFL, but in high school and junior high. He has never proven to be sustainably coachable."

Harvin always had the talent. He won Virginia high school state championships in the long jump, triple jump, 100 meters, 200 meters and 4x100-meter relay -- all in the same year. But his involvement in multiple heat-of-the-moment altercations led to repeated suspensions, an arrest and even his banishment from a high school sports league. A reported positive test for marijuana at the combine threw up another red flag.

Those incidents are ancient history. Harvin has never served an NFL suspension despite playing in an era when commissioner Roger Goodell has embraced a law-and-order approach to the role.

Harvin, drafted 22nd overall in 2009 after dominating at the University of Florida, has at times been as dynamic as any player in the NFL, scoring touchdowns as a receiver, runner and kickoff returner.

"The best all around player I ever seen or you'll ever see!" teammate and reigning MVP Adrian Peterson tweeted after the Vikings shipped Harvin to Seattle two weeks ago. "I feel like I just got kicked in the stomach."

Only injuries and spotty quarterback play have limited Harvin as a pro. But he was outspoken about his unhappiness in Minnesota last offseason. Reports of trade demands surfaced again more recently, strengthening perceptions of Harvin as difficult.

"I think that’s classic of a competitor that sometimes they push the limits," Carroll said. "You like that because that’s who they are. I don’t have any problem with that. I don’t have any problem with guys being highly, highly competitive. There’s an understanding that we had to come together on. We’ve already talked to Percy. I want him to be as competitive as he can be. We need to make sure it always helps our football team."

The teams drafting Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Aaron Maybin, Knowshon Moreno, Larry English and Robert Ayers ahead of Harvin would have been much better off selecting Harvin despite repeated warnings. The teams drafting those players never could have leveraged them into what the Vikings are getting from Seattle. Not even close.

Which leads back to the question at hand: How much risk is Seattle taking?

General managers polled at the NFL owners meeting raised a few concerns from a Seahawks perspective.

  • Financial risk: Committing $25 million guaranteed to an enigmatic, regularly injured player made some uncomfortable. The Vikings did not come right out and call Harvin uncoachable, but Frazier's comments certainly left that impression. Again, teams don't trade away supremely talented 24-year-old players without reason. The Seahawks are getting a player the Vikings couldn't manage. Not only that, they are empowering that player with all that guaranteed cash.
  • Questionable trade-off: Giving up premium draft choices was another issue for some. Seattle traded the 25th and 214th picks of the 2013 draft and a 2014 third-rounder to the Vikings. The players Seattle could have drafted in those slots would have played under team-friendly rookie contracts. For example, the deal Dont'a Hightower signed with the New England Patriots as the 25th pick in 2012 could count less than $8 million against the cap over its four-year life. Harvin's contract is scheduled to consume $67 million in salary-cap space over its life.
  • Locker-room implications: The Seahawks have a long list of young, talented players in line for new contracts over the next couple of years. They approach those negotiations having proved in spectacular fashion their willingness to pay absolute top dollar for a player who has never scored a touchdown or made a tackle for them. While it's debatable whether Seattle could have gotten hometown discounts from Kam Chancellor, Sherman, Earl Thomas or the others, they can forget about it now.

The Seahawks can answer the concerns pretty convincingly.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Tom Dahlin/Getty ImagesPercy Harvin adds another dimension to an already dynamic Seattle offense.
Carroll's ability to reach players is arguably unsurpassed in the NFL. Not many coaches could pull off piping hip-hop music into practices without coming off as phony, but Carroll does that and more. He is the antithesis in style and probably substance to Brad Childress, the uptight former Vikings coach. And with Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell signing off enthusiastically on the trade after coaching Harvin in Minnesota, the Seahawks proceeded without the reservations some teams would have brought to the deal.

"Darrell had a great relationship with Percy that I found out, after talking with Percy, was reciprocated," Carroll said. "They worked together really well. He raved about his competitiveness, raved about his work ethic, raved about his talent. It was just total positive, supportive perspective from Darrell on him. The best perspective that we could have called on was what Darrell told me. That cemented the idea, 'Let’s go for it.'"

The Seahawks, unlike the Vikings, also have a dynamic young quarterback to keep Harvin happy. Harvin flourished when Brett Favre was the Vikings' quarterback. Russell Wilson arrives at Seahawks headquarters around 6 a.m. during the offseason, demonstrating a competitive will that Harvin has said intrigued him.

"It just resonated with Percy," Carroll said.

Giving up high draft picks for the right to overpay a veteran prospect goes against what the Seahawks and most teams believe in philosophically. Seattle obviously felt as though the 25th pick in the draft wasn't likely to return a player with nearly the dynamism Harvin will offer from the beginning. The 2014 third-round pick that was part of the deal represents what Seattle would pay to move up five or six slots in the first round this year.

I was most interested in the potential fallout with Chancellor, Sherman, Thomas and the Seahawks' other Pro Bowl-caliber players working under cheap rookie deals. All will presumably welcome adding to their roster a playmaker with Harvin's credentials, but the dollar signs in their eyes had to grow in size as well.

"We are taking care of all of our guys, every single one of our guys," Carroll said. "We're working Kam right now and we're going to continue to work our guys."

Chancellor is scheduled to earn $1.3 million in 2013, the final year of his contract. Receiver Golden Tate is also scheduled for free agency in a year. Thomas and Sherman are signed through 2014. They're like planes circling over an airport, each eager to land a big-money deal.

One rival coach downplayed the consequences a Harvin-type contract will have in a locker room.

"Players understand the business side of the game," the St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher said. "The business side always sorts itself out. Guys go into that last year and tend to pick it up.

"Those things aren't a distraction. Maybe they are discussed off-campus, but not in a locker room."

The Seahawks' ongoing negotiations with Chancellor provide one test case. Recent history suggests Seattle could have other options as well. Chancellor was a fifth-round pick. So was Sherman. The Seahawks have a couple of fifth-round choices in the 2013 draft. Continuing to draft well would remove pressure from negotiations.

"We're not going to pay guys ahead of [schedule] just because we're working with their contracts," Carroll said, "but we know as our guys come up, those are all managed for the future and we have a big plan for all that.

"[GM] John [Schneider] has worked hard at it. And because we have worked so hard at it, we were in position where we had free-agency money to spend and hopefully we will continue to be able to manage it in that fashion."
After appearing on MVP Watch and before visiting the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9, Adrian Peterson dominated much of the "Inside Slant" podcast discussion Wednesday.

The Minnesota Vikings running back is challenging what we've thought about serious knee injuries by disregarding standard timetables for rehabilitation.

Peyton Manning, another player thriving improbably following career-altering surgery, also stars in this podcast. Russell Wilson, Romeo Crennel, Brett Favre, Jamal Lewis, Terry Allen, Norv Turner, Leslie Frazier, Titus Young, Richard Sherman, Alex Smith, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas surface at various points.

Listeners also receive special Halloween access to a photo showing a certain NFC West blogger in costume as though right off the set for that John Clayton commercial.

Around the NFC West: 'Audacious visions'

February, 27, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL scouting combine wraps up this week in a relatively new venue.

Lucas Oil Stadium was also site of the Super Bowl this year.

The San Francisco 49ers will not be playing host to the combine at any point, but they appear likely to land a Super Bowl after securing necessary financing for a new stadium, to be ready for the 2014 or 2015 season.

Getting a stadium built in California stands as an upset for the 49ers and their ownership.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with 49ers president and minority owner Gideon Yu, who credits CEO Jed York for laying out grand visions. Yu: "I’ve worked for a lot of guys in the past that have audacious big visions. Jed ranks up there with those guys that were set to change the world -- going out to change the world. Jed in his own way is doing the same thing. His audacious goal, audacious visions are the ones we as a team went out and implemented. So getting this stadium financed in what amounts to a year before everybody thought that we would -- you never thought we would -- but we did the best we could to get it done a year ahead of time. That started from Jed asking a very simple question, which was, it looked like things were going well with the NFL, going well with our team, there’s some good tailwinds here, because of the new CBA, the new television deal: ‘Is there a chance to get a fully financed stadium right now?’ We went out there, tested the market, and sure enough, the market was ready for us. And what credit do I get? The credit that I get is making sure that what Jed laid down for us was executed."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers safety Dashon Goldson is looking for an agent after firing Drew Rosenhaus. Barrows: "Goldson hired Rosenhaus in 2010 in an effort to secure a lucrative, long-term contract. Goldson was impressed with the five-year, $37 million deal Rosenhaus secured for safety Antrel Rolle with the New York Giants. Goldson, however, failed to get a similar offer when he hit the free-agent market last summer. The 49ers offered him a five-year, $25 million deal, but Goldson and Rosenhaus turned it down in the belief that there were richer offers available. There were not, and Goldson ended up signing a one-year, $2 million contract with the 49ers instead."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks' desire to secure pass-rush help might be best satisfied by investing a first-round draft choice. O'Neil: "In the past 10 seasons, there have been 12 rookies who had 10 or more sacks. Eleven of those 12 players were drafted in the first round, which tells you that pass rushers capable of making an immediate impact are like snowmen in Seattle: They don't tend to last more than a day."

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says Seahawks general manager John Schneider had this to say about Matt Flynn during the John Clayton Show: "Matt is a championship kid, he really is. We drafted real him late -- I think it was the sixth or seventh round -- in Green Bay and you know he's done a really nice job. Those guys have done a great job of developing him over there. He's one of those guys who steps in the locker room and has instant respect."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt for thoughts on the NFC West. Whisenhunt: "All those questions about the NFC West being a weak division dried up pretty quick. We all know San Francisco had a really good year. A lot of teams respected the way we played and the way Seattle played, not so much maybe from a won-loss record, even though we both did better in the second half of the season, but I certainly think in the way our teams were physical, the way they went about the game. Let me tell you something, no matter what you want to say about the Rams' record, they were a very physical football team as well, and they played hard, no matter what."

Also from Somers: thoughts on Andre Roberts and the Cardinals' perceived need for receiver help. Somers: "My early guess is that the Cardinals will pursue a free agent receiver, but one at a reasonable price. Their success in doing that will determine their plans for the draft. Either way, I don't see them taking a receiver high in this draft. They don't have a second-round pick, and they have more pressing needs. My sense is that coaches think any deficiency they might have at receiver can be rectified by better quarterback play."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Whisenhunt would welcome adding the Hall of Fame Game to the schedule in part because Arizona could use an additional exhibition game to get its quarterbacks ready.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams could bring back tackle Jason Smith. Thomas: "If the Rams truly are confident that Smith can return and stay healthy, that would lessen the need to expend a high pick -- such as their No. 2 overall selection -- on someone such as Southern California's Matt Kalil. Then again, counting on Smith and Rodger Saffold, who missed the last four games of 2011 because of a pectoral muscle injury, would be operating without a safety net."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com considers possibilities for the Rams with the No. 2 overall pick. Wagoner: "If the popular scenario in which the Rams trade down with Cleveland and end up with the No. 4 pick, many think the Rams would then be at the mercy of Minnesota when it comes to who they’d draft. The theory, as it goes, is that the Browns would obviously select Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III and then the Vikings would make the choice between Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and USC tackle Matt Kalil. The Rams, then, would draft the player that Minnesota doesn’t select. Much like the Rams, the Vikings need help at both positions and Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier was non-committal but might have given a little clue which way the Vikings would go should that scenario play out."
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 up-and-coming assistant coaches in the league today. Next week: Top players overall.

Seven NFL teams named new head coaches after last season, tapping into a pool that included experienced coordinators and relatively unknown assistants alike. The class of 2011 featured longtime candidates (Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera). It also included a trusted position coach in Mike Munchak (Tennessee Titans) and a couple of relative hotshots in Hue Jackson (Oakland Raiders) and Pat Shurmur (Cleveland Browns).

Who will comprise the NFL's next batch of head-coaching candidates? That was the question ESPN.com hoped to answer in this week's edition of the offseason Power Rankings. We established one ground rule by eliminating any assistant who has already had a permanent head-coaching job. The idea was to develop a list that focused on the "next wave" of coaching candidates.

No less than 24 NFL assistants received at least one vote, a reflection of both the variables involved in head-coaching searches and the relative lack of national name recognition for all but the most highly regarded assistants.

So in that vein, it was no surprise to see four well-known assistants at the top of our list, headed by New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell -- who placed first or second on six of the eight ballots. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finished second, followed by New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm.

Fewell is an ideal candidate in many ways, having spent time as the Buffalo Bills' interim coach in 2009 and leading a substantial turnaround of the Giants' defense last season. Fewell interviewed for four head-coaching jobs last winter, and NFC East blogger Dan Graziano suggested that experience, along with a high profile afforded to coaches in New York, make him "the most likely guy on the list to be a head coach soon."

Just don't bother forwarding his name to AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, who couldn't find room for Fewell on his 10-man ballot. Kuharsky noted the Giants' poor performance in Week 2 last season against the Indianapolis Colts, during which quarterback Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns and cruised to an easy 38-14 victory.

"Certainly I'm letting one game overinfluence my ballot," Kuharsky muttered. "But Fewell's plan for the Giants against the Colts last season was so bad that I could not help but score him down for it. Was he not familiar with how Peyton Manning and Indianapolis operate?"

We can't cover every coach who received votes in this exercise, but let's hit some of the more interesting names that received attention.

Another Ryan? Deserved or not, Ryan has long been considered a loose cannon. There is little doubt about his schematic prowess, but hiring him would require a confident owner ready to make a leap of faith.

The success of twin brother Rex Ryan with the Jets might have softened the perception of that risk, and collectively we see Rob Ryan on the doorstep of a job.

"Similar to Rex, Rob Ryan is good with X's and O's and has the type of outgoing personality players want to be around," AFC North blogger James Walker said. "I think both are equally important in today's NFL. Both brothers say exactly what's on their mind, and before that scared off a lot of teams. But Rex broke the ice with his success in New York and that could help Rob in the future."

The next generation: Schottenheimer has turned down more opportunities to interview for head-coaching jobs than he has actually submitted to. He has nixed requests from the Miami Dolphins and Bills in recent years, but he did interview for the Jets' job that ultimately went to Ryan. I placed him atop my ballot (he finished No. 3 overall) because I think NFL people have made up their mind that he is the kind of young and innovative assistant who can turn around their franchise. (Think: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.)

Schottenheimer's pedigree doesn't hurt -- he's the son of longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer -- and I'm not sure how closely teams will dissect the specifics of the Jets' offensive performance. Graziano, on the other hand, thinks Schottenheimer is close to coaching his way out of the golden-child image he cultivated and left him off his ballot.

"Having spent a good amount of time around that team the past couple of years, I just feel like defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is the more likely guy to end up a head coach," Graziano said. "Schottenheimer's under a ton of pressure as Ryan defers the offensive responsibilities to him. I feel like, if the offense has a bad year, he could end up in trouble or even out of a job. And given their youth at quarterback and running back and the uncertainty of their receiver situation, a bad year for the Jets' offense is possible.

"Now, he could be a genius, make chicken salad and be the next hot name eight months from now. But I think there's the potential that he may have already peaked as a hot coaching prospect and that he might not be set up to succeed in New York."

The big fella: Four years ago, Grimm thought he would be the next Pittsburgh Steelers coach. He moved to Arizona after the Steelers selected Mike Tomlin instead, and we view his status as a head-coaching candidate with wide disparity.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson put Grimm atop his ballot, and AFC East blogger Tim Graham had him No. 2. Kuharsky and I left him off.

Williamson thinks Grimm has moved to "the top of the food chain" largely because most of his "hot-name" contemporaries have already gotten jobs. As well, Graham suggested that it will soon be Grimm's turn because he is still well-regarded throughout the league.

Personally, I couldn't get past Grimm's well-publicized gaffe after interviewing with the Chicago Bears, after which he referred to the team owners as the "McClaskey" family. I also agree with NFC West blogger Mike Sando, who ranked Grimm No. 8 and wondered: "Is he still ascending? Grimm seems content coaching the line in Arizona. He has plateaued and doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over it."

Welcome back: Unless you're a college football fan, you might not have heard of Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. He spent six years as the head coach at Arizona State, but has drawn some quiet acclaim for his work with the Jaguars and made a strong impression while interviewing with the Denver Broncos last winter.

"In a setting where he won't have to deal with boosters and can shine for being a smart X's and O's guy with strong coaching DNA," Kuharsky said, "I think he'd do far better. He's smart and will interview quite well. He really impressed John Elway and the Broncos before losing out to John Fox's experience. St. Louis wanted him as coordinator, but Jacksonville wouldn't let him go. He's heading into the final year of his contract. How Blaine Gabbert develops early on will have a big bearing on Koetter's future."

Secret weapon: In two years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have developed quarterback Josh Freeman into one of the better starters in the league. The man largely responsible is offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who navigated a disastrous 2009 preseason -- coach Raheem Morris promoted him in the middle of training camp after firing Jeff Jagodzinski -- and NFL teams often seek out coaches with success developing young quarterbacks.

"I think Olson deserves a ton of credit for developing Freeman so quickly," said NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas. "Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first full season as a starter and carried an incredibly young team to a 10-6 record. I also think people need to look at what Olson did last year with rookie running back LeGarrette Blount and rookie receiver Mike Williams. He helped make them into instant stars."

Super Bowl entitlement: The Green Bay Packers were the only team to place more than one name in the top 10, as would be expected from a championship team. Assistant head coach/inside linebackers Winston Moss is at No. 6, while safeties coach Darren Perry finished No. 10. I also voted for receivers coach Edgar Bennett, who has moved over from running backs coach and is clearly being groomed for bigger things.

I'll detail my ranking of the Packers' assistants, including why I think so highly of Perry, in a future post for NFC North readers. But we'll say this for now: Moss is a strong leader who has drawn interest from the Raiders, while Perry is a disciple of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his coveted 3-4 scheme.
The San Francisco 49ers had grand plans for Michael Crabtree when the gifted Texas Tech receiver fell to them in the 2009 NFL draft.

Those plans took a detour when a contract dispute kept Crabtree away from the 49ers well into his rookie season. Now, another kind of dispute -- the one between the NFL and its players -- could block Crabtree and every other player from getting the offseason work they need to approach their potential.

Michael Crabtree
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesMichael Crabtree and the 49ers are one example of a team that would be hurt by a lockout.
The 49ers, sensitive to rules discouraging organized interaction between players and coaches during the labor dispute, have already shut down the informal coaching that often takes place this time of year. No meetings, no passing out playbooks, no hands-on instruction and possibly no shot at installing the new schemes that come with having a new staff. It figures to only get worse. An expiring labor agreement and potential lockout could wipe out offseason conditioning programs, minicamps and training camps, leaving teams scrambling if a deal does come together in time for the regular season.

NFL offseasons traditionally produce winners and losers, but this one threatens to produce only losers of varying degrees. Crabtree and the 49ers, both coming off a disappointing 2010 season, rank among the more vulnerable parties:

  • Cleveland, Denver, Carolina and San Francisco hired new head coaches from outside their organizations. These teams are starting over.
  • Tennessee, Oakland, Dallas and Minnesota promoted head coaches from within. These teams are transitioning.
  • Six of the eight teams with new head coaches have unsettled quarterback situations. Make it seven if you're not convinced Jason Campbell will start in Oakland.
  • Six of the eight teams with new head coaches are breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Dallas and Cleveland have no offensive coordinators.
  • Nine of the 24 teams with returning head coaches are breaking in at least one new coordinator on offense or defense.
  • Add it up and you have 17 teams, more than half the league, breaking in a new head coach and/or at least one coordinator. Two of the other teams, Miami and Washington, are figuring out their quarterback situations.

There's still time for the NFL and its players to strike a deal that would allow teams to prepare sufficiently for the 2011 season. But with the labor agreement set to expire Thursday night, let's take a closer look at four additional situations of note. (Update: The NFL and the players' union agreed to a 24-hour extension to the CBA on Thursday afternoon.)

(Read full post)

McDaniels out? Rams, Seattle competing?

January, 18, 2011
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The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks could be competing for coaching talent after the Rams' talks with Josh McDaniels apparently hit a snag over money.

Seattle plans to interview Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to replace the outgoing Jedd Fisch as quarterbacks coach, ESPN's John Clayton is reporting. ESPN's Chris Mortensen says the Rams are also making a run at Bevell -- and Atlanta Falcons assistant Bill Musgrave -- after talks with McDaniels broke down.

Bevell and Bill Musgrave, promoted by former Rams executive Tony Softli as a logical coordinating candidate, would presumably come cheaper than McDaniels.

Bevell's status has remained uncertain since the Vikings named Leslie Frazier head coach. Minnesota interviewed McDaniels as a candidate to become coordinator. The Vikings have given Bevell permission to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Bevell has been the Vikings' offensive coordinator since 2006. He worked for the Green Bay Packers beginning in 2000, when Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was still with the team. Bevell was a quality control coach at that point. He became quarterbacks coach in 2003, after Hasselbeck had joined the Seahawks.

Mortensen cites a source as saying the Rams took a "conservative fiscal approach" with McDaniels, and this could have been a problem in negotiations. McDaniels has been a head coach recently, so he's accustomed to earning top dollar. Can he command well into seven figures as a coordinator? Should the Rams pay whatever it takes?

The Rams have wealthier ownership since Stan Kroenke took over full control of the team. That doesn't mean the Rams will issue blank checks. The Seahawks have stood firm on financial matters even though their owner, Paul Allen, has deeper pockets than any of his peers.

This news on McDaniels could equate to a game of poker. It's too early to call the Rams cheap or declare the talks dead.

I think the Rams offer McDaniels his best shot at becoming a head coach again. Working with Sam Bradford would appeal to any coordinating candidate. Bradford is going to be good, most likely, whether or not McDaniels coordinates the offense. But the Rams have a responsibility to find the coordinator most likely to help Bradford realize his potential.

McDaniels might be that coordinator.

If the Rams pass on McDaniels over money, it's likely the fit wasn't going to be ideal. McDaniels might view himself in a manner inconsistent with how the Rams want him to fit into their staff.
Former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary could surface in Minnesota as the Vikings' linebackers coach.

The Vikings plan to interview Singletary, ESPN's John Clayton is reporting.

This seems like a natural fit. Singletary has experience coaching linebackers. He and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier played together with the Chicago Bears in the early 1980s. They share an agent.

Singletary still has two years remaining on his contract with the 49ers. He could have a job before the 49ers replace him.

The Vikings and 49ers do not face one another in 2011.

Power rankings revisited: Week 12

November, 29, 2010
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A weekly review of how teams performed in relation to last week’s Power Rankings (with new rankings scheduled for Tuesday):

Still waiting for those once-vulnerable Chicago Bears to implode?

It's not happening, or at least it has not happened yet. Quite the opposite has been true for the team that risked mixing Mike Martz with Jay Cutler.

The Bears have bounced back from a 1-3 October to win four in a row. They had beaten bad teams (Buffalo, Minnesota) and an injured team (Miami) before their Week 12 victory against Philadelphia, the sixth-ranked team in ESPN.com's NFL Power Rankings entering the week. Look for the 12th-ranked Bears to crack the top 10 when our four panelists -- me, John Clayton, Paul Kuharsky and James Walker -- cast ballots following the Monday night game.

For the Bears, who approach December as the only NFC North team with more than seven victories, upcoming home games against the New England Patriots and New York Jets are looking more like opportunities than games to dread.

The reckoning: The top five teams in the Week 12 rankings won. The sixth- and seventh-ranked teams lost. Five games featured lower-ranked teams beating higher-ranked teams. Let's take a closer look at them ...
  • (25) Minnesota 17, (18) Washington 13: Brett Favre wasn't handing that game ball to Leslie Frazier as much as he was handing it to someone other than Brad Childress, right there on the field for all to see.
  • (20) Houston 20, (17) Tennessee 0: The Texans might be right when they suggest the Titans coach aggressive (dirty?) tactics. From 2002 through Week 11, the Titans led the league in total accepted and declined penalties across the following categories: disqualification, 15-yard facemask, horse collar tackle, personal foul, roughing the kicker, roughing the passer, taunting, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
  • (19) Miami 33, (16) Oakland 17: Two rough weeks in a row for the Raiders and (former?) MVP candidate Darren McFadden.
  • (14) San Diego 36, (9) Indianapolis 14: Peyton Manning's recent fall removes him from the MVP discussion for now.
  • (12) Chicago 31, (6) Philadelphia 26: The Eagles should be fine. They draw Houston at home in prime time next week.
Still to play: San Francisco at Arizona on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:20 p.m. ET).

My early favorite for the No. 1 spot: Atlanta. New England is close behind, however.

NFC West left tackles in Week 9 spotlight

November, 7, 2010
11/07/10
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The last time Chester Pitts started at left tackle in a game at Qwest Field, injuries and other considerations prompted his Houston Texans to use four combinations on their offensive line.

In the first quarter.

"You have to do what you have to do," Pitts said after the Texans' 42-10 defeat in Seattle five years ago. "They aren't going to cancel the game just because of an injury."

Those words ring true for Pitts' Seahawks against the New York Giants in Week 9.

Pitts becomes the Seahawks' eighth player to start at left tackle over the team's last 29 regular-season games, an unnecessary reminder of the value Walter Jones provided as a perennial Pro Bowl choice at the position. Pitts will be facing Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who leads the NFL with seven forced fumbles while ranking tied for second in sacks with eight.

Teams can help offensive tackles in protection multiple ways. Tight ends and running backs can help with blocking. Coordinators can call designed rollouts, moving the pocket away from potential trouble. Running the ball directly at elite pass-rushers can also help. But almost any offense at least occasionally asks its left tackle to hold up on his own.

How well NFC West left tackles handle the job Sunday stands as an important storyline.

Arizona's Levi Brown is the Cardinals' third starting left tackle in the team's last 11 regular-season games, succeeding Mike Gandy and Jeremy Bridges at the position. He faces Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen when the Cardinals visit the Minnesota Vikings for an early game Sunday. Allen's sack production has lagged this season. Bridges largely contained him when the teams played last season.

Brown has been stronger at run blocking than pass protection throughout his career.

That seemed to be the case against Tampa Bay in Week 8. I watched the game again Saturday night and made four notes on Brown. Two pass-protection breakdowns killed plays in the first half. A strong run block freed Beanie Wells for an 11-yard gain. Strong pass protection helped Derek Anderson complete a 25-yard pass to Early Doucet in the third quarter.

Allen, meanwhile, ranks tied for 119th in the league this season with one sack.

"I'm looking for him to have a bust-out game," Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said this week.

Around the NFC West: Doucet's time

January, 14, 2010
1/14/10
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Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals receiver Early Doucet, who has overcome a rough start to his career. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "One thing we've been consistent with is we've made our players earn their opportunities on the field," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Look at even Kurt (Warner). Kurt had to earn that job, too. I think it builds a hunger and confidence within these players. Early had it tough, but that created a toughness in Early. He understood what it took for him to prepare and get ready to play, and you're seeing it pay off now. His confidence has soared, and (against the Packers) we got a chance to see that really blossom."

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' defense has much to prove against the Saints. Antrel Rolle: "People can sleep on us all they want. We know what type of defense we are. We're not always going to play our best game. But we know what we're capable of, and we realize our mistakes when they happen."

John Faherty of the Arizona Republic says the Phoenix area is home to quite a few Saints fans displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

McManaman and Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic offer Cardinals-related notes. Darnell Dockett and Gabe Watson want the ball in goal-line situations.

Also from Somers: Gerald Hayes and Anquan Boldin missed practice again Wednesday. Both could practice Thursday, Whisenhunt said.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Karlos Dansby is contributing for the Cardinals even though his stats aren't as good this season. Urban: "For the Cardinals, Dansby gives the defense an anchor around which the rest of the pieces can be placed. While the veteran still can step into the spotlight -- witness Sunday’s wild-card performance, when he tipped a pass to cause an interception, forced a key fumble and later returned a fumble for the game-winning touchdown -- it's Dansby’s reliability that makes him valuable."

Karen Crouse of the New York Times says Kurt Warner contemplates retirement in part because he wants to spend more time with his kids. Wife Brenda: "He wants to be as good a dad as he is a quarterback. He wants to be there, be in the moment with them, and football takes him away from that."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch joins colleagues in projecting Marc Bulger's future with the Rams. Thomas: "I still think it’s better than 50-50 that Bulger will not be back. And if he’s traded to a non-contending team he may pull a Jake Plummer and just retire. But in order to dispose of Bulger, the Rams need two quarterbacks — a veteran and a draft pick. How they fare on those two fronts over the next three months might have a lot to do with whether Bulger returns to St. Louis in 2010." I see no way for the Rams to bring back Bulger under his current contract, which features an $8.5 million salary for 2010. That is far too much money for what Bulger has been able to offer in return.

Turf Show Times' VanRam says the stats show the Rams' offense to have been worse than its defense, and the team needs playmakers.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee checks in with Bobby April, who met with Mike Singletary regarding the 49ers' opening for a special-teams coach. Barrows: "April, 56, said he had a good conversation with Mike Singletary in Orlando on Tuesday. He said that Singletary did not offer him the job, although the two plan to speak by telephone later this week. April also has met with the Steelers about their vacancy at special teams coordinator and that he's heard from other teams as well."

Also from Barrows: 49ers defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois is awaiting word regarding the safety of relatives affected by the earthquake in Haiti. Barrows: "He said he spoke briefly with his brother who said that he had to dodge a falling ceiling fan when the earthquake struck. When he went outside, his bother saw that much of Port-au Prince, a city of 2 million, had been flattened."

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Nate Clements, Michael Lewis and Brandon Jones need to justify their salaries or take paycuts before returning in 2010. Maiocco: "The question is whether the 49ers are prepared to pay Clements $6 million to play cornerback. That is more than twice Shawntae Spencer's scheduled salary. There is no hurry to get Clements to accept a pay cut, if that's the route the 49ers plan to take. The 49ers can hold onto Clements until the final cuts to determine what a fair price for his services would be for the 2010 season."

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune makes the case for the Seahawks to hire Floyd Reese as their general manager. Boling: "Some of the other GM candidates may be young and promising and on the way up. But Reese has actually done this and proven he can do it over the long haul. In his first season as top executive with the franchise that turned into the Tennessee Titans, he hired Jeff Fisher, who has been the head coach ever since. ... The Seahawks have the No. 6 and No. 14 picks in the first round of the upcoming draft, so this will be critical. How has Reese done in such situations? Well, in 1996, he used the No. 14 pick to get running back Eddie George, who was offensive rookie of the year and went to four Pro Bowls. With the No. 16 pick in ’99, he added defensive end Jevon Kearse … defensive rookie of the year. His No. 15 pick in 2002 was Albert Haynesworth, a two-time Pro Bowl run-stopping beast. As for that high pick? With the No. 3 selection in ’95, he drafted quarterback Steve McNair, a three-time Pro Bowl player who was the NFL co-MVP in ’03."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks are interested in Jerry Gray as a potential defensive coordinator. O'Neil: "Gray is a candidate as defensive coordinator, and Dan Quinn, Seattle's defensive line coach, is also a consideration to keep on staff. Quinn also is thought to be a potential target of the New York Jets, whom he worked for before coming to the Seahawks. Gus Bradley, the Seahawks defensive coordinator last year, also has a chance to stay on Seattle's staff."

Also from O'Neil: Pete Carroll's former associate, Daryl Gross, explains why he likes the Seahawks' new coach.

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com sizes up the Rooney Rule as it applies to the Seahawks' recent coaching search. Johns: "In cases like Seattle's, where a team has already identified its top candidate, the interview becomes a token effort and seems demeaning to candidates who are essentially being used just to fulfill the obligation. Yet there is another way to look at this, even in the awkward case of Leslie Frazier's chat with Seattle. If not for the Rooney Rule, (Tod) Leiweke would have never talked to Frazier. He never would have met with him for four hours, been impressed by what he saw and then spread the word to other NFL execs who might someday be looking for their own coach."

Also from Johns: Lawyer Milloy says Carroll's training camps were as hard as those run by Bill Parcells. Johns: "Obviously, I think the biggest difference was there wasn't the scare tactics that you had with a Parcells or (Bill) Belichick or someone like that. Does that mean he's a player's coach? I don't know. But when you go to the playoffs two years in a row, I don't think that's being a mediocre coach."

Seahawks' Rooney Rule dance continues

January, 8, 2010
1/08/10
11:47
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The Seahawks' attempts to court USC coach Pete Carroll without violating the Rooney Rule appears awkward, as outlined in this report from SI.com's Jim Trotter.

John Wooten, chair of the Fritz Pollard Alliance promoting diversity in NFL hiring, sheds light on the Seahawks' attempts to interview Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, a move that would satisfy the Rooney Rule requiring teams to consider minority candidates.

It's a tough sell when everyone knows -- or at least thinks -- Carroll is the man Seattle wants for the job.

According to Wooten, Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke told him the Seahawks would not be willing to give Carroll as much control as Mike Holmgren wielded as coach and general manager from 1999 to 2002. That assurance was apparently a signal to Frazier that the Seahawks were not willing to hire Carroll unconditionally.

Compliance with the Rooney Rule in this case seems tricky. The Seahawks might not have been willing to fire Mora until they were reasonably sure they could get the coach they wanted, presumably Carroll. They couldn't know whether they could get Carroll without approaching him and exploring possibilities.

The team could not have fulfilled the Rooney Rule while Mora was still the head coach.

Frazier shouldn't be expected to play along just to help Seattle get through the process. As Trotter noted in a followup tweet, "Leslie Frazier will back out of interview with Seahawks on [Saturday] unless he 1st receives assurances that Pete Carroll WON'T have total control."

The Seahawks cannot allow another candidate to dictate terms of any future agreements, but they also cannot comply with the Rooney Rule without interviewing Frazier or another minority candidate.

Fun times for Leiweke.

Seahawks may still interview Frazier

January, 8, 2010
1/08/10
5:56
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The earlier item questioning whether the Seahawks could satisfy the Rooney Rule if they hired Pete Carroll might have an answer.

Judd Zulgad of the Minneapolis Star Tribune says the team will interview Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier after all.

The situation is so fluid that the picture can change by the minute.

Frazier has nothing to gain from interviewing if the Seahawks view his candidacy as merely one way to satisfy the Rooney Rule. He also has nothing to lose if there's even an outside chance the team could hire him -- either now or sometime down the road.

Carroll still appears to be the focus of the Seahawks' attention as the team lines up a replacement for Jim Mora.

Seahawks and Rooney Rule compliance

January, 8, 2010
1/08/10
5:13
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News that the Seahawks are pursuing Pete Carroll as their head coach broke not long after the team fired Jim Mora.

In between, word came out that Seattle was interested in interviewing Vikings assistant Leslie Frazier.

If Carroll had been the choice all along, Frazier's candidacy would have done little beyond satisfying the Rooney Rule requiring teams to interview a minority candidate.

It's tough to imagine a minority coach agreeing to an interview just to satisfy a process.

The Rooney Rule did not apply to the Seahawks when they signed Mora to a five-year deal while Mike Holmgren was still head coach, just as the Rams were allowed to name Mike Martz as Dick Vermeil's successor years ago. The NFL backed the Redskins' quick hiring of Mike Shanahan amid questions about Rooney Rule compliance.

Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke has expressed sensitivity to process and compliance over the years while others, including Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, have said the Rooney Rule has outlived its usefulness.

Also on the Carroll front: ESPN Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller's take on why the timing might be right for Carroll to rejoin the NFL.

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